The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

Dispatch from Xinjiang: Uighur Food in Hotan

Fatty lamb spiced with cumin, chili peppers, and an herb called zir brought me to Xinjiang. While there, I happily put myself on a spiced lamb and starch diet.

For hundreds of years, cooking practices and spices flowed along the Silk Road from Central Asia to China and back again. At the center of this trade was what is now Xinjiang. Not surprisingly, Uighurs developed a cuisine that reflects the region’s history as a bridge between cultures. This delicious hybrid cuisine differentiates itself from neighboring cuisines with its masterful use of spices. Cumin and saffron arrived from the west and star anise and Sichuan pepper flakes came from the east. Uighur cooks will carefully mix these spices from around the globe and put them on big, fatty pieces of lamb.

You can eat this lamb most famously with hand-pulled noodles and peppers (laghman), in a rice pilaf (polo), or on skewers. In each of these the lamb is prepared differently, and each of these is delicious. Typically the lamb skewers have one piece of meat that is just a hunk of spiced fat—somehow though, it’s tender and not chewy.

In Hotan—a city along a southern Silk Road route—I ate polo, a Uighur rice pilaf. The lamb had been steamed with the rice, making the rice oily with fat. Two softball-sized chunks of lamb were then plopped on the bed of rice. The cooks mixed in some shredded carrots, a small amount of yogurt, and spices. It’s a simple dish, but in its mix of spices one can taste the history of Silk Road.

And it’s delicious.

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